How They Created the Bear VFX for the Mauling of Leonardo DiCaprio in ‘The Revenant’

How They Created the Bear VFX for the Mauling of Leonardo DiCaprio in 'The Revenant'

While "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" enters the Academy’s VFX bake-off on Saturday as the obvious frontrunner, everyone wants to know how ILM did the harrowing bear attack in "The Revenant." Here’s a behind the scenes glimpse from VFX production supervisor Richard McBride.

READ MORE: "Oscar Visual Effects Shortlist of 20 Includes ‘Star Wars’ Sequel"

"What was interesting, thinking back to the early discussions with [director] Alejandro [González Iñárritu]," recalled McBride, "was how it was all about movement and planning and choreography, but always coming back to how an actual bear attack would unfold. And the other thing was getting into the mindset that this was not a monster: it’s in its natural habitat and just behaving as a normal animal would [a mother protecting her cubs]. Alejandro wanted the attack to be sudden and wanted us to feel close to the action and immersed in every detail," added McBride, who was joined by animation supervisor Matt Shumway.

However, unlike the opening Native American ambush, the grizzly bear mauling was conceived as "one continuous take" in a primordial-looking rain forest. That is, it was seamlessly stitched together with even greater skill than "Birdman." Overall, it was a brilliant collaboration between Iñárritu, cinematographer Emmanuel (Chivo) Lubezki, Leonardo DiCaprio, production designer Jack Fisk, the stunt team, ILM, the sound editing/design team of Martin Hernandez, Randy Thom and Lon Bender, editor Stephen Mirrione and Technicolor in post.

The ILM bear team first met with "Mark of the Grizzly" author Scott
McMillion and learned about all of the potential scenarios that
can happen in the woods. It was based on chance encounters, such as a bear
protecting its cubs, which was the basis of attack in "The Revenant."

READ MORE: "The Impactful 8: Ranking the Top Contenders in the VFX Oscar Race" 

A crucial reference, though, was online footage of an actual bear attack at a German zoo, in which a man drunkenly stumbled into the cage. What was most remarkable was the seeming randomness of the attack and that it was shot without cuts. This formed the basis of the choreography. "Initially, a stunt team worked out the choreography of how they were going to tug and pull the actor during the mauling," continued McBride. They shot the scene on location in freezing cold and rain and staged the beats of the attack.

"For us, the VFX team, we wanted to keep Leo visible and also keep it kind of messy, so once we had the camera work there, we positioned our stuntman in a way that he was grabbing and pulling in all the right places where we thought the bites were gonna be. And keeping him at a distance where there would be a little less paint work in getting him in and out of the scene and having our bear on top of him. Ultimately, the paint work was extensive because of how close we were to the action."

The most interesting part of the attack was the quiet or stillness that occurred in between the vicious moments. The anticipation of what was going to happen next made it scarier."When Leo got involved, he added a whole other beat where you’re getting more sympathy for the bear," McBride continued.

READ MORE: "How ‘The Revenant’ Changed Emmanuel Lubezki’s Life" 

In terms of the animation, ILM took advantage of its recent fur work on the upcoming "Warcraft," but needed to up its game considerably. "One of the unique aspects was there wasn’t the customary separation between grooming and simulation," McBride emphasized. "This project pushed the pipeline so that it adhered to the initial look that you built into it. So there was the simulation of flesh over the bones and then a layer of skin that got another [round] of simulation and then the fur got simulated on top of that. This provided complexity to the motion. But we had to dial it back because if you looked at the reference, sometimes the shimmer on the fur looked too computer-generated the way it was blinking on and off."

ILM used its Zeno pipeline for simulation, Maya for animation and Pixar’s RenderMan for rendering. Meanwhile, the modeling
team built shapes and controls that provided a very naturalistic performance for the grizzly.

Other considerations included
how wet the fur was going to be, how it was going to react to the light and how we
were going to see the wound and the redness of the blood.

"These nuanced tics and
gestures and articulation in areas of the face, eyes, snout and mouth avoided
the look of menace," McBride said. 

"There’s a moment where the gunshot has already happened and they’re both damaged: the bear is bleeding and Leo’s torn up. And the camera goes back to the bear and she’s torn: the cubs are on one side and this threat is on the other and she’s struggling to stand. She could walk away but goes for one last lunge in her dying moment to protect her cubs," McBride concluded.

No wonder the bear attack has garnered so much industry buzz—it’s the dramatic essence of great VFX.

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I don’t care if you have friends or acquaintances that are indigenous (frankly I doubt it…sounds like the homophobic who says some of his best friends are gay). But if you indeed do have native friends who are not offended by the word Indian, well all I can tell you is that Uncle Toms exist in every racial denomination. My denomination would tell you exactly where to stick your peace pipe.


Referring to me as an Indian is like being called a n-word from a white supremacist.


And by the way. I am Algonquin.


Indians come from India you morons!


I should have written "Indian descent," sorry about that


Abe, there is a "champion for every absurdity" and you seem to be one. So can we all go back and reverse the idiotic campaign to change the sport team’s names, etc. to supposedly "respect" the Indians? How can being called a Native American be respectful when they were never Americans to begin with? They were a native people yes, but not Americans, and to be classified as the very people who took over and raped their land and then were expected to be thankful to be "given" land to live on (reservations) is appalling. Did any of the "powers that be" consider asking the Indians what they wanted to be called to begin with? But of course, liberals assume people can’t think and answer for themselves. It’s incredibly unfortunate that liberals believe they are essential and must step in and speak for those who are perfectly intelligent and capable to speak for themselves. Come on Americans, Indians, whites, blacks, men, women…stand up for yourselves. Those of you are are of Indian assent, I praise you for commenting here – it is very refreshing to hear your valuable and intelligent thoughts (unlike Abe’s worthless and ignorant comment)

Clint Matthews

I have to give you an Oscar for that, it was an incredible scene and a great movie!!


Forgive me for all the typos as normally don’t comment on much just tired of CGI trying to represent real life. Its just a version of some person who knows nothing about the real animal and therefore just adds in what they "think" is correct. You may play a cardiac surgeon on the screen but of course could never do the real surgery. Just had to calm everyone down on how great this bear was.


    Greg: You’re a moron. For this scene there was a huge amount of detail and research based on footage of real-life bear attacks on people. You can go on youtube and watch numerous clips of bears mauling idiots; and The Revenants take on the attack is so close to the real thing it’s indistinguishable. If you hate VFX so much, why don’t you volunteer to let yourself get mauled by a wild grizzly so we can all chew popcorn and watch the real-deal?


well for most people I suppose this looked real and accurate. the speed and intensity of the initial charge of the grizzly is good and from there on all these people are just anthropormorphizing the entire event. If you have trained grizzlies or any predator the first thing you learn is as a human you are clueless on how any given predation will transpire. Its subtle but for thoise of us who know and have handled these animals pixels are about as accurate as inaccurate on animal movement as the humans sitting in studio are which created them. Everyone is congratulating themselves but don’t understand, as with Beowolf, pixels are never going replicate real people or a real bear in this case. witht he right direction and trainer it woulkd have been incredibly more intense and emotional and just like synthetic furs look there is an obvious difference from the real animal. Compare it to Legends of The Fall


Hi Bill, My son and I saw ‘The Revenant’ today and when looking over the meaning of the word revenant we came across your article on the internet. Its a fantastic article and we really took some time off to read it. The bear fighting scene is an incredible film sequence. Could you tell us how much time it takes to make these sequences ? … you have mentioned the software used and the use of VFX. Thanks for posting.

Skipper Lay

I have backpacked many years in Grizzly habitat, both in Lower 48 of US and in Canada. I was pretty blown away by the realism of the whole attack scene, and yet I knew it had to be VFX. I of course carry bear spray, which science tells us is more effective in negative conditioning or hazing than guns. Moreover, grizzlies are the smartest of all land mammals and changing them by conditioning can be extremely difficult. Any individual bear is different than another, but all are taught by the sow for 2 years or more. So biggest kudos for a job well done. Can an Academy Award be awarded for VFX?


An incredible film, rather like a rougher, grittier ‘Jeremiah Johnson’.
Incidentally ‘Abe’, given that Bill so magnanimously replaced ‘Indian’ with ‘Native American’ at your request, then perhaps you would consider changing ‘I’ve ever SCENE’ to ‘I’ve ever SEEN’ – which in my opinion was the greater offense of the two! ;)


In my comment above I am referring to domestic terrorists.

The CGI was awesome which is what led me here in the first place. Too bad the post did not stay on topic thanks to Abe’s stupid unecessary comment that has caused many of us to wast our time writing this extra commentary.


Now that some true Indians have voiced their opinion that the word Indian is not offensive it is what they are and the world is too PC, Bill you should change it back to Indian. What is next terrorists should be called Syrian American (substitute or PC country version here we dont want to offend) a**holes.

h. Patchell

As much as I like Ieanardo’s acting, until I found out the bear was animated I thought thought the bear should have been the recpient of an academy best actot award. A bear of a bear cubs too. Great movie. The producer should be thankful he found such a fine actor as decapio I also tip my hat to Mr. Hardy


The movie is by far one of the best portrayed movies of this era. Being Arikara really puts the history in perspective. Oh, and no offense to the use of the word "Indian" as that is what we are. Save the politically correctness for something more vile..

Paul Davey

Mainly because the Indians in the movie are "Native Canadians" …not "Americans."


ABE, the use of the word ‘indian’ is within context of the film. I would find that using native in conjunction with American more offensive than indian! After all America was named after an Italian! And totally takes away what they truly are and who they are. By the way this is not being critical of your comment just that if you wish comment on something make sure you have all the peices before using another slang word for ‘indian’.


Abe please go to a large, unpopulated area and self implode

Kathy Garcelon

L. DeCarlo wasn’t a disappointment. The bear being so obviously computer generated, as were the other animals, simply went hand in hand with Hugh Glass’ never succumbing to hypothermia or getting frostbite.
There ought not be any need for a "based on a true story" movie to be so phony. What a let down.


I do feel like the bear in real life would have not given him a chance to survive, especially bear felt "forced", delayed (not talking about vfx / technical side, but the action itself)


Abe…I live in "Indian" territory in Western Ny…they define themselves as the "Seneca Nation of Indians" Are you Indian?? If not why do you care? They refer to themselves as "Indians" everyday I converse to them…I work on the "Res"…and guess what?? 75-80% of them also wear Washington "Redskins" hats, jerseys….etc. So do your research first


To ask them to be called Native Americans is more insulting. They are Pawnee, Cherokee, etc. thinks tribe names, your comment is ridiculous


sucked big time.


OMG… they’re indians. Let it rest.


just saw the move only for the vfx part and after watching the full movie i got addicted to the movie.

Deb Mann

No doubt, bear’s the most realistic fx I’ve seen; in volume, texture, movement — still feel it 24hrs later. Response to Abe, the use of ‘Indian’ was generic to that period. I’m glad it played 3hrs; every scene was precious. I felt like I was transported to that time/place. Astounding work.

Maynard Barker

That was the most realistic looking Bear attach. I was really amazed at the scene as it made you feel you were there in person.


Abe…"indian" comes from "unauthorized genre in dios",

Mitch Marty

Hey abe,

You and politically correct people like you are ruining the united states. No one wants to hear about you guys constantly finding ways to feel like a victim. Instead of nit picking everything trying to make something out of nothing, find a hobby. Your comment added nothing to this great article. Really bummed that I took 2 minutes out of my day to type this but I feel like I have to let people like you know that they suck. You suck.

b batts

Spoken like a true liberal. Get real.


May I alert all to the existence of the "The National Museum of the American Indian" – a part of the Smithsonian Institution and is dedicated to the life, languages, literature, history, and arts of the Native Americans of the Western Hemisphere
Address: 4th St & Independence Ave SW, Washington, DC 20560. Many of the "tribe" prefer American Indian over Native American.


Great shot. They did mix shots of a real bear with the VFX stuff, though, didn’t they?

Also, I’m of the Little Shell tribe in Montana. I use "Indian" as do many of my Blackfeet friends. Either that or Native American works for me.


Abe, the fact is that many of our elders and boomers still refer to themselves as "indians" The native community has been split on what we prefer to be called. Most i know prefer to be called by their nation or tribe. jmo

Fred Pace

Very well written article…like the movie, each line in the story kept me wanting to read more


Respectfully, Abe, I lived for many years among American Indians and this is mainly what they call themselves. Native American is a term white people have come up with in an effort to be politically correct, but I never heard them using it. Informally, they refer to themselves as "Indians," and formally, as indigenous, First Nations or Native people, and of course, by their tribal name. Yes, the VFX is fabulous.


Just saw this movie! This is the best movie I’ve seen in a long tima and much better than Star Wars.

Dan Rezac

The bear scene was great- hands down worth the price of admission. However, I was not impressed with many of the other digital shots in the film. I found myself getting taken out of the film with the "uncanny valley" of a lot of the other digital animal shots- the bison, the wild hogs. Also- it’s a clear "tell" that the filmmakers will use lens flares to paint over green screen shots for backlight (or key light). This happened way too many times in the movie. So for VFX- it was really all over the place. Storywise- I loved it.

Joe Berk

That was an amazing scene. It’s all my wife and I talked about after seeing the movie. Your work is awesome.

Jackson Kennett

The scene was simply amazing…thank you for not using a real bear in any part of the movie.


I just saw the movie and the bear scene was incredible. Leonardo Dicaprio is an amazing actor but all the actors in this movie made it one of the best films I have seen in a long time.

Debra Davis

I cannot believe how people have such thing skin, these days.I am Indian, it took me years to admit I was. But now that I am an adult, it does not bother me at all to see the"Native Americans to be referred to as indians.I am proud to be Indian.Unfortunately the more we give in the more people are going to want.

John flanagan

Abe needs a life ……this movie tries to depict things the way they were in the 1820’s …..I do agree the call from the white guys should have been the "native Americans are coming"………NOT


amazing article. I honestly thought that was a real bear.


I was blown away by this scene the effects are so real I believed every moment, grimacing at times. We have truly come a long way with VFX I believe we are now entering the uncanny valley as it’s called.

Bill Desowitz

Sure, no problem.


Hi Bill, fantastic article about one of the most astounding pieces of VFX I’ve ever scene.

A side note: Would you consider changing your use of the word "Indian" to "Native American." Even though the movie uses the word, I can’t think many of those actors would condone how you have used the word here. This isn’t a critique, your article is comprehensive and sound, but that word is incredibly outdated and references a different culture.

Bill Desowitz

Yes, I interviewed Richard McBride.

jesse mackinnon

that’s the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen in the movies

Kevin K.

Was the author of this article able to speak to Richard McBride directly, or was this taken from another source?

Mark Hills

Ok I get that the bear was animated but was there a stuntman in a blue or green suit doing the scene with LDC? Like Gollum in LOTR?

Ashley Wilkes

I watched The Revenant on my iPhone. Therefore I cannot be fussy about the quality of the CGI of the Bear attack because on my iPhone it look terribly realistic. The only thing that wasn’t realistic to me was that an experienced tracker like those in this movie would have immediately position themselves as low to the ground as possible so as not to be seen IV on the scene mother grizzly instead of standing totally upright with pointed gun seeing the bear cub but not the mother. That was not realistic. Also the mother grizzly would not have hesitated to rip Leonardo DiCaprio into several pieces instead of simply playing around with him- which in the context of what the bear could’ve done is not what the bear did – DiCaprio definitely would not have survived the attack. He was bleeding profusely from several major areas of his body and no matter what his companions could’ve done he would not have survived that kind profuse bleeding. He would have bled out rather quickly. That said, the scene was incredibly realistic and made me sick to my stomach for a while and was very difficult to watch. Kudos to the CGI FX team and the research that was put into it. That scene was a definite milestone in the evolution of CGI in movies. I also felt the CGI effects involving other animals although not as vicious and terrifying as the bear attack were excellent. Not sure if I would have seen it differently on the big screen as opposed to my iPhone. May never know. But the feedback here is from people who obviously viewed the movie on much bigger screens most of which were in movie theaters. And still the majority of them were shocked and impressed by the stellar CGI FX in The Revenant.


I thought that this movie and the special video effects were incredible. The acting was excellent with concurrence of most legitimate film critics. The native people should be called the “Original Owners of the Western Hemisphere. It is horrible how the Northern Europeans treated them, taking their land and butchering the population with guns and disease. This movie well-depicts that tragedy.

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